Olden Days in UK Public Libraries – #6

A personal history

Moving On

In the new post, I was back with my old team, albeit in a more exalted role. The branch was now operating out of a couple of portacabins on a patch of wasteland while a new civic complex was under construction on the old site. As well as a much enhanced library, it would include a health clinic, Youth Employment Bureau and Citizens Advice Bureau, with flats above and a car park below. The Scout Hut still huddled at the back of the building site.

The new library was built on two levels with an ramped entrance to the main library. Staff rooms and a meeting room were also at this level. Record sleeves were displayed at a lower level alongside an exhibition area, through which readers could access the children’s library which also had its own entrance from the landscaped frontage.

My duties as deputy Branch Librarian included supervising the tills, taking hall bookings and troubleshooting the photocopier. It should have included timetabling, but the Branch Librarian liked to keep control of this himself – some felt so that he could annoy a certain member of staff at bank holidays when she had her own preferred working hours. Other staff also felt aggrieved at times when their timetabling pleas seemed to go unheard by our laconic chief. I often acted as go-between, suggesting amendments that would suit everyone. It probably would have been quicker to set the timetables myself in the first place, but I only got to do this when the boss was on holiday.

I was timetabled on to the Reference Desk and Record Library when cover was needed, and this was where reservations were managed and ‘journey boxes’ were emptied. (These were belt-secured boxes that arrived daily from Central Library on the journey van that took our boxes in exchange.) Some of these contained new books and I amassed a to-be-read pile of any that took my fancy and weren’t already reserved by readers.

When the Branch Librarian was on holiday, I got to select that week’s book purchases, marking up our copy of The Bookseller and attending the weekly book selection meeting at Central library. A goodly proportion of these were titles requested by readers pre-publication. We had a strong contingent of ladies who favoured romances. Many received the Mills and Boon catalogue by post and would vie with each other to be first on the reservations list for their favourite authors.

One of our Library Assistants was a colourful figure – not least in her cosmetic artistry. She dressed flamboyantly too, with always a wide belt drawing in an impossibly slender waist. A published author of ‘bodice-ripper’ period romances, she had a faithful following among the Mills-and-Booners.

Our resident authoress was often ‘off sick’, which the Branch Librarian would blame on restricted breathing caused by her wasplike belts. The rest of us suspected her illnesses had more to do with deadlines looming for her next publication.

Staffing levels were such that I was able to adjust timetables to cover her absences while still ensuring that the two part-timers who had fallen out were never on the counter or in the workroom together.

But cuts were being made to public libraries.

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Pexels.com

I left the borough’s library service in January 1979. Maternity leave was not an option back then. A single payment maternity grant had just been introduced, with a second payable on the birth of another child within two years of the first. Sadly, my daughter was born two months too late to secure this one (which amounted to half of the first payment).

I missed my to-be-read pile. Somehow, those I chose from the library shelves were never as interesting.

When I left the library, borrowers still formed Saturday queues through the door into the foyer, but already these were shrinking. We still had no security gates, nor computers, although ‘photo-charging’ was scheduled for Central the following year. Security gates came much later.

Subsequent visits with my new son in tow saw the workroom become an ever quieter and often empty space, with an abandoned feel to it. I cannot deny we had been generously staffed in the seventies, with a Branch and Assistant Branch Librarian, Music Librarian, Children’s Librarian, the equivalent of four full-time Library Assistants and additional Saturday staff. My post was filled when I left, but my replacement wasn’t replaced when she retired.

Today, the lower level of the building is a gym. A professional librarian will supervise several branches in the borough, and volunteer Friends of the Library do much of the shelving.

The Scout hut is still there.

Photo by C Technical on Pexels.com

Four children and thirteen years later, I returned to full-time work.

The borough’s library staff were scrambling for posts in an ever-shrinking library service, but schools had begun recruiting school librarians, and this became my route back into library work, moving on through Further Education colleges into Higher Education.

I still have fond memories, though, of my ten years in public libraries as they used to be.

(OK, it wasn’t quite that long ago. . . But sometimes it feels like it.)

Please share with us your stories of libraries you have know.

9 thoughts on “Olden Days in UK Public Libraries – #6

  1. Terrific, I enjoyed this paragraph particularly:
    “One of our Library Assistants was a colourful figure – not least in her cosmetic artistry. She dressed flamboyantly too, with always a wide belt drawing in an impossibly slender waist. A published author of ‘bodice-ripper’ period romances, she had a faithful following among the Mills-and-Booners.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. it’s interesting to read f your experiences as a librarian, but sad to read the description of its decline. I hope they never completely disappear, since I consider libraries to be the heart of any community…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Our local library has been very supportive of our writerly efforts pre-covid, hosting our first local ‘event’ when the Whittlesey Wordsmiths published our debut anthology. It’s a shame Phil and I have had to produce our recent publications without their support locally.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Cathy this is a beautiful post. It is so personal, an autobiography almost. Public libraries have certainly changed over the years, as have school libraries. Have you read The Library book by Susan Orlean? I couldn’t put it down. It was the subject of a book chat in our little town, which is how I found out about it. Anyway, I’m going to link your comment on Story Chat this week to this post so I hope that at least a few people will stop and check it out and love it as much as I do. BTW, your comments on Story Chat this month once again get to the heart of the issue of the story. You are a fabulous story chatter! 🙂 Thanks again for all you do in the blogging world, and for being a friend. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

      1. You are more than deserving, Cathy. I am thrilled to learn more about what makes you such a great Story Chatter! 🙂 I love how you have the ability to come in and hone in on the essence of each story. It’s amazing. 🙂 Thanks again for participating, not only in your own Story Chat, but in all the others. I’m honored.

        Liked by 1 person

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